A Journey into the Apocrypha
The apocrypha has always fascinated me. “What is that collection of mysterious books that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have tucked away between the Old and New Testaments?” I often wondered growing up. And though I often thought that I’d get around to reading it one day, there always seemed to be some other book that was more pressing. That is, until this year.
Several months ago, I listened to a great book on the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) by Timothy M. Law called ‘When God Spoke Greek’ (a book I would definitely recommend; you can find it here). After finding out that the Septuagint not only includes a number of divergent readings in the Old Testament itself but also all of the Apocrphya, I could wait no longer. It was time to take the plunge into the mysterious world of the Apocrypha.
To prepare, I pulled out my NRSV Annotated Apocrypha and ordered a copy of ‘Introducing the Apocrypha’ by David deSilva from the library. And with those tools, my journey into the Apocrypha began.
One of the first things that set many of the books contained in the Apocrypha apart from those in the traditional Protestant canon is that they are obviously works of fiction. They confuse geography, mention nonhistorical places, and contain other historical errors. These are generally not works of history. They are stories. But that doesn’t mean that they lack worth. Like Jesus’ parables, these stories communicate important values and they also help us to see more clearly what Judaism was like when Jesus came on the scene in the first century.
The Tragedies of Tobit
Tobit tells the story of its eponymous hero who was exiled with his family from Galilee to Nineveh. Tobit lives a life of charity – “I would give my food to the hungry and my clothing to the naked; and if I saw the dead body of any of my people thrown out behind the wall of Nineveh, I would bury it” (Tobit 1:17). In chapter 2, right before sitting down to eat, Tobit learns that someone has murdered one of his people and left their body in the streets. He “sprang up, left the dinner before even tasting it, and removed the body from the square and laid it in one of the rooms until sunset when [he] might bury it” (Tobit 2:4). This kind of reflexive faithfulness to God characterized Tobit. And yet, like Job, Tobit meets with tragedy.
Tobit loses his eyesight after some sparrows relieve themselves in his eyes. Yes, you read that right. Cause of blindness: sparrow droppings.
So now, though Tobit has been faithful to God and his commands, he has lost his sight and thus, his ability to work or take care of himself (or his family). Though the absurdity of Tobit’s situation might make you laugh, there is an underlying reality that hits awfully close to home. As I read this story, I thought about a minister I know who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Like Tobit, he had served God. Like Tobit, he had been faithful. And like Tobit, tragedy struck. But Tobit’s story is a reminder that tragedy does not have the final say.
And so, while Tobit laments his loss – we’re introduced to Sarah, a woman who is dealing with a tragedy of a different kind.
The demon, Asmodeus, is in love with Sarah and that’s a problem because he kills all of her potential suitors. Although she’s been engaged seven times, on the night of each wedding, Asmodeus kills her potential husband leaving Sarah with little prospect of finding a new one. And understandably so.
But There is Hope…
But neither Tobit’s nor Sarah’s stories end in tragedy. Tobias, Tobit’s son, meets an angel named Raphael who, in the guise of a human, leads Tobias to Sarah, defeats Asmodeus, arranges their wedding, and eventually heals Tobit’s eyes. In the end, all is made right.
Though there are a number of really peculiar moments in this story (Tobit’s blindness is eventually healed by fish gall), ultimately, it’s a reminder that God is always at work and tragedy does not have the final word.
I might never consider Tobit scripture, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth reading and considering. There are a number of powerful verses throughout and I can completely understand why some mainline denominations occasionally use a passage in chapter 8 to read at weddings.
“Blessed are you, O God of our ancestors,
and blessed is your name in all
Let the heavens and the whole creation
bless you forever.
You made Adam, and for him you made
his wife Eve
as a helper and support.
From the two of them the human race
You said, ‘It is not good that the man
should be alone;
let us make a helper for him like
I now am taking this kinswoman of mine,
not because of lust,
but with sincerity.
Grant that she and I may find mercy
and that we may grow old together.”
And they both said “Amen, Amen.” – Tobit 8:5b-8
Ultimately, Tobit is a great reminder that the best life we can lead is a life of service to God and others – even when we face trials and opposition. And any book that pushes us toward that goal is worth reading at least once.
Rather than shunning the Apocrypha as something dangerous or without merit, I believe that these stories have some important things to teach us. Like any other work of devotion, we ought not read it as authoritative scripture but we ought to read it. And if we do, I believe we just might learn something – and be encouraged to serve God more faithfully.
Have a question about the Apocrypha in general or Tobit in particular? Leave a comment below and I’ll try to get around to answering it.
Next week: Judith!
Want to Read it for Yourself?
If you’d like to read Judith, you can find it online here.
If you’d like to purchase a copy of the entire Apocrypha, you can get it from Amazon, here.